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Orlando massacre raises fears for vital tourism industry
[ORLANDO] The highway from Orlando International Airport into town hums with cars and buses full of families from around the world giddy over the prospect of having fun at Disney World and other theme parks.
Now, electronic billboards along the roadside flash a gut-punch reality check from a local radio station that reads: "Praying for Our City."
Orlando is having a nightmarish week: the murder of a singer, the deadliest mass shooting in US history at a gay nightclub the next night, and tragedy at the Magic Kingdom - a toddler snatched by an alligator at a Disney resort hotel.
And experts say that at least in the short term, the central Florida city - one of America's top tourist draws with 65 million visitors in 2015, according to industry association VisitOrlando - will lose some of its fabulously profitable lure.
"We do expect to see a decline in the number of tourists coming here, and especially in the international tourists," Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College for Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, told AFP in an interview.
But Mr Pizam said at his office, in the heart of the city's resort area, that the downward slide should not last long - if there is no similar tragic event any time soon.
At the weekend, gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at the Pulse nightclub, a gay hotspot in downtown Orlando. Forty-nine people were killed in the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11.
Another 53 were wounded in the hours-long maelstrom of bullets and blood during Latin Night at the club until police stormed the place and killed the shooter.
Orlando thus joined Paris, London, Madrid, San Bernardino and many other cities around the world united in pain over the past decade by the raw fury of terrorism.
"People come from all over the globe to have fun, to make memories," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said at a candlelight vigil the night after the club attack.
Making matters worse, a two-year-old Nebraska boy was snatched by an alligator Tuesday night in a man-made lake at an upscale Disney resort hotel.
Officials held out little hope Wednesday that rescuers would find the toddler alive. The boy had been playing in shallow water at the edge of the Seven Seas Lagoon, with his family nearby. His father was unable to pry the child from the gator's mouth.
Security at theme parks and across Orlando has been stepped up in the wake of the shooting - which officials hope will reassure visitors.
Disney said it has added more canine units and officers and enhanced other less visible measures after reports that Mateen may have cased Disney World as a possible target.
On Wednesday, Disney closed all resort beaches and marinas in the wake of the alligator attack.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina told AFP that his people have stepped up their presence around the city, among other measures, without going into detail.
"We are doing things," he said Monday night while attending the vigil.
At the bustling gates of Disney's Magic Kingdom on Tuesday evening, some visitors said they were jittery over being there with the nightmare of the club carnage still fresh in their minds.
Jay Pierce, a 50-year-old security analyst visiting the theme park with his family from Indiana, said that if the attack has happened at a resort rather than a spot for locals, he would have cancelled their trip.
"But I think it was isolated, more than anything," Mr Pierce said, standing near the gates.
Americans are seemingly inured to the sad replay of mass shootings, said Lynette Deian, a medical office clerk from Illinois, adding: "It is hard to put your life on hold."
Orlando as a city is one thing, and the resorts that provide its lifeblood are entirely another, said Robert Niles, who runs the nationwide resort info website www.themeparkinsider.com.
Mr Niles likened the area's 12-odd theme parks to a standalone entity that really has little to do with the rest of the city of some 2.3 million.
"For travelers, Orlando is the airport through which you reach the theme parks," he said from his office in Pasadena, California.
The tourism industry here is mammoth: 100,000 jobs, and revenue from the theme parks alone totals US$11-12 billion a year.
Mr Pizam said that even if the drop in tourism in the wake of the shooting is small, the cost is huge nonetheless, when so much money is at stake.
"Talk about one per cent or two per cent," he said of the visitor numbers. "Here you know 10 per cent is six million and one percent is 600,000. So it is still a very significant number."
"Everything here is done on a very large scale," he added.